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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree not only that it would be difficult to decide if a response was grossly disproportionate, but that there is an implication that it would be okay to be disproportionate?

Dr. Palmer: The hon. Lady makes a good point. If we changed the law in this way, we should be saying that it was okay to be disproportionate or unreasonable, so long as we were not grossly disproportionate. I would be very reluctant to anchor that principle in the law of Great Britain. The principle of reasonableness, which we apply to enormous swathes of the law, is very valuable. It has stood the test of time, and juries have traditionally interpreted it in a way that most of us would accept. If we were to move from the concept of what a reasonable person would do, and to adopt a concept of what a not-grossly-disproportionate person would do, I submit that we should be moving on to dangerous territory. We should be moving into the area of frontier law.

I hope that I am not misrepresenting the hon. Member for North Shropshire—he will correct me if I am—but I understood him to say that, because people in remote farmhouses, for example, cannot realistically expect the police to dash round at two minutes' notice, they need to take other measures to deter burglars and make them think twice before intruding on their property. I assume that such measures would include the possession of some kind of weapon with which the householder could defend themselves in the event of what they saw as a dangerous intruder entering their property. That would say to people across the countryside, "We encourage you to equip yourselves with weaponry, and, if you see someone who you believe to be an intruder, you can use those weapons on them so long as you are confident that a jury will not find that you have behaved in a grossly disproportionate manner." That would be dangerous in the extreme. I do not believe that the general public want it to be the norm in the British countryside for people to arm themselves in order to assault potential intruders. That is not where we want to go; it would lead to more trouble than we have at the moment.

Patrick Mercer: What the hon. Gentleman is saying makes a great deal of sense. There is nothing in the Bills
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introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York or myself that aims to aggravate the situations that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. That is precisely why we have included new subsection (1B).

Dr. Palmer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was, as always, measured and restrained. None the less, as the hon. Member for Vale of York said in her introduction, the Bill would be significant in the sense that it would send a message to householders. There are two possible messages that we could send. One is that nothing much has changed; we might have changed the wording a bit, but basically people are still in the same legal grey area as before, in that they will not know whether they are going to be prosecuted or not. I suggest that, if we send that message, people will be quite fed up with us. They will say that we just mess about and do not change anything.

The other message that we could send is that people can take additional measures to arm or protect themselves against intruders. That is what people would understand by the Bill if it were passed. All the clarification in the world would not make a difference to that conclusion, and the result would leave the peace and quiet of the British countryside in a much worse position than it is today. There is a tradition in the British countryside, as I am sure the hon. Member for North Shropshire will confirm, that if someone gets lost or needs help, or if the weather turns unpleasant, they can go to a stranger's house and ask for assistance. People might be a little wary if they were to do that in central Nottingham—"Who is this stranger knocking on my door? What does he want?"—but the tradition still exists in the countryside. It would be a great pity if we were to tilt the balance away from that because of the increasingly rare cases of violent burglary. We must not put that balance at risk by starting what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South referred to as a sort of arms race. We should not encourage householders to buy knives, to set traps, or to build barbed wire or electric fences in order to fight off intruders by themselves.

We all appreciate that people who choose to live in a remote area might be worried about the time that it can take for the police to respond when they are called. However, the measure proposed by the hon. Member for Vale of York would make no difference to the probability of conviction. It would instead risk sending a message that would be counterproductive to law in order in Britain. That is the fundamental risk that the Bill creates.

If the Bill had been presented in a non-partisan way, I would merely have thought it a mistake. As it stands, however, it seems to me to be a mistake that has been made for political reasons. This subject deserves more serious treatment than it has so far received.

10.57 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Some extremely interesting points have been raised so far. Before I start to make my points, as best I can, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who introduced the issue in the first place. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for
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Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who has added tremendously to the Bill that I tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce at the beginning of this year.

The Bill before us today contains a number of provisions that are considerably better than those in my Bill, particularly proposed new subsection (1C), which clears up the misapprehensions—which I was partly responsible for broadcasting—about the difference between these provisions and those in the Theft Act 1968. I also want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—who, sadly, is unable to be present today—for the points that she made in Committee on the parts of my Bill that pertained to Northern Ireland.

I think that I am unique in that I am the only person in the Chamber today who knows and has spoken on many occasions to Mr. Brendon Fearon. Let me remind the court—I mean the House—of the Tony Martin case. When it came to light, it enlivened the whole of my constituency. The two boys who went to try to burgle Tony Martin's farm both came from the crime-ridden estate of Hawtonville, in the north of my constituency. One of them, Brendon Fearon, survives today, despite having sustained gunshot wounds to his left buttock. The other, Fred Barras is, in my view quite wrongly, in his grave.

There is no doubt in my mind that Fred Barras was a criminal and that he should have been deterred. Nor is there any doubt in my mind that his victim could have used a number of methods to stop him burgling his farm. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, however, that both young men were assaulted in a grossly disproportionate way, and one of them was murdered but should today be alive and—if I can be forgiven the phrase—kicking.

The fact remains that the individual who convinced me of the rectitude of what I tried to do unsuccessfully earlier this year was Mr. Brendon Fearon. He has a long criminal record and he continues to offend. When it became clear to that excellent organ, the Newark Advertiser, that I was going to introduce my Bill, it went to interview Brendon Fearon. It knew quite well that he was certain to be found at the magistrates court, which is exactly where it found him. It put the case to him by saying, "If our Member of Parliament manages to introduce this Bill, what effect would it have on you as a persistent offender?" A number of Labour Members, from a sedentary position, have referred to the fact that if Conservative Members thought that criminals would be deterred, we were living in cloud cuckoo land. Mr. Brendon Fearon said that if the Bill were introduced, it would deter him, and would stop him committing the crimes of which he has been convicted on many occasions.

When I introduced the Bill, it seemed that I had the support of the Prime Minister. I will not bore the House by going through the Prime Minister's precise words, but he changed his tune after a little while. It also seemed that I had—hardly, on mature reflection—the support
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of the brand spanking new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair. He also changed his tune after a matter of hours.

Janet Anderson : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Sir Ian subsequently retracted the comments that he made on the "Today programme" and gave his support to the Association of Chief Police Officers' position?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I do not know whether she heard Sir Ian Blair's words on the radio in January this year, but, unfortunately for him, it was his first day in post, and I have no doubt that he had not had time properly to be briefed on the Government's line. The fact remained, however, that in the early hours of that day, he said, although I paraphrase him, that grossly disproportionate was a reasonable test. Later in the day, he changed that, and the hon. Lady will remember that the Prime Minister had to express his confidence in him on his very first day in post.

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